Middle East | Why Syrian peace talks remain a bridge too far for success

Why Syrian peace talks remain a bridge too far for success

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 18, 2016 9:27 AM (UTC+8)
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The US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart make a queer pair. Seldom does a day pass when they don’t have a word with each other on Syria. The best spin is what the Saudi analysts give – that presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have a secret deal.

John Kerry (R) and Sergei Lavrov at the meeting of the International Syria Support Group in Vienna
John Kerry (R) and Sergei Lavrov at the meeting of the International Syria Support Group in Vienna

Indeed, neither Obama nor Putin would have any conceivable reason to aggravate the Syrian crisis. On the other hand, the Russian-American ties are at their worst in the post-Cold War era and they are unlikely to improve during the Obama presidency.

In fact, the Russians have just named a goat – a black goat – after Obama, and the Primorsky Safari Park has ‘adopted’ it, according to NBC News. (In Russian, ‘goat’ stands figuratively for obtuse, obstinate and headstrong people.)

No wonder, the joint press conference given by Kerry and Lavrov in their capacity as the ‘co-chairs’ of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which met in Vienna on Tuesday, rubbishes the Saudi thesis regarding a secret Obama-Putin pact.

The sparring between the two veteran diplomats was a delight to watch. Yet, with all their professional ingenuity, they struggled to show results after the meeting in Vienna.

Succinctly put, Washington and Moscow cannot impose their views on their regional allies even if they want to. (Kerry traveled to Vienna via Saudi Arabia.)

From all accounts, Washington has failed to fulfil commitment to intensify its support and assistance to regional allies to help them prevent the flow of weapons, fighters, or financial support to terrorist organizations across the borders (in Syria), as stipulated under the US-Russian joint statement of May 9.

If anything, the support for extremist groups by Turkey and Saudi Arabia has only increased. In Lavrov’s stark description, “We see supplies of tanks to Syria and when suicide bombers use tanks for terror acts, it is something new in the crisis.”

Is there a ‘cessation of hostilities’ possible at all? The Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that there was no real let-up in the fighting on Tuesday. It said:

“Syrian army engaged in intense battles against the rebel groups on several fronts on Tuesday. The Syrian army has temporarily cut off the road between the capital Damascus and the southern province of Daraa, after the rebels in the town of Khan al-Shih approached the road, prompting the Syrian army to unleash an offensive against that area.

“In the central province of Homs, the Syrian army advanced toward the al-Shaer gas field, which was recently taken by the Islamic State (IS) group. The… military forces reached the gates of the gas field, which has changed hands between the IS and the Syrian army in the eastern countryside of Homs.

“In the northern city of Aleppo, the rebels continued to shell residential areas in the government-controlled part west of Aleppo … In the eastern countryside of Damascus, rebels-on-rebels fighting have flared up on Tuesday”.

Another inflection point lies in the free-wheeling ‘commingling’ by the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front with the ‘moderate’ rebel groups, which are supported by the US and its allies.

As Lavrov put it, Nusra Front “makes alliances with some groups that accede to cessation of hostilities, but when it suits them, they pull out of these arrangements – and then, only to go back”.

Isn’t the US aware of what is going on? It’s indeed surreal – how one chooses to see Nusra Front.

At the meeting in Vienna, one Arab foreign minister apparently had a Freudean slip when he pondered aloud whether the defeat of the Nusra would not work to the advantage of the Syrian regime. After the ISSG meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir actually held out the threat:

  • We believe we should have moved to a ‘Plan B’ a long time ago. The choice about moving to an alternative plan, the choice about intensifying the military support (to the opposition) is entirely with the Bashar regime. If they do not respond to the treaties of the international community … then we will have to see what else can be done.

The Turkish President Recep Erdogan was more explicit on Tuesday in Istanbul (even as the ISSG was in session) that Turkey will unilaterally act on Syria in self-interest. Erdogan all but flung the allegation at the US and Russia that they have been covertly supporting terrorist groups (read Kurdish militants) in the region:

  • We always say this; the biggest problem… is not terror itself. The biggest problem… is the hypocritical, two-faced, insincere attitude in the face of terror organizations. States which exercise control over the world’s arms industry give their weapons to terrorists. I challenge them to deny this. By now, we all know which countries supply arms to which terror groups.

The Turkish and Saudi strategy has been to use the period since end-February when the US and Russia reached the agreement on a ceasefire in Syria (and the subsequent Russian decision in mid-March to draw down forces from Syria) to neutralize the Assad regime’s advantages on the ground.

Indeed, the strategy is making headway. The delivery of portable ground-to-air missile launchers to the rebel groups, in particular, has begun to make a difference in the balance of forces on the ground.

The Syrian government, which previously enjoyed unchallenged air power, no longer has that advantage.

In the space of one month, the regime lost three combat planes that were shot down by the rebel groups in northern Syria using ground-to-air missiles.

Saturation bombing of the Islamist targets is no longer conceivable. Nor can extensive air cover be given for ground operations.

Without air power, government forces and allies – Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah – have lately taken big blows in the fighting in the south-western region of Aleppo.

Turkey even made a limited land incursion into Syria recently to test the Russian reflexes.

All things considered, it comes as no surprise that the ISSG meeting ended without any breakthrough. Evidently, the countries represented in the ISSG have divergent views and major disagreements on a range of issues.

Unless there is a cessation of hostilities, the peace process cannot take off. But then, it is not just about farewell to arms. It is essentially a strategic decision borne out of the realization that a military solution is not possible. That point still lies in the womb of time.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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